Wizards of Oz

"Life is fraughtless ... when you're thoughtless."



Nearly 25 years ago, as a freshman college student balancing a science major with the obligatory credits in the Humanities, my English 101 professor introduced me to the concept of “verisimilitude”: the likeness or resemblance of a creative writing effort to reality. While this was a difficult feat for me in my writing assignments, it is something that Luke Larson has effortlessly achieved in his first novel, Senator’s Son.

Luke was a journalism major at a rival PAC-10 school, courtesy of an NROTC scholarship to the University of Arizona, and as a junior officer in the U.S. Marine Corps served two tours in Iraq (both in al Anbar province – first in 2005 during the election of the Iraqi Transitional Government that was to draft a permanent constitution, and again in 2007 during the Iraqi national referendum and the start of General Petraeus’s “Surge”).

Senator’s Son wastes no time hurling the reader into the breech. Written in a tempo prestissimo style, this rapid-fire novel gives you a no-holds-barred perspective of modern counterinsurgency from multiple perspectives: the families at home with a dissociated populace; the wounded warriors battling the demons of recovery, opiate pain-killer addictions and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; the careerist bureaucrats that infiltrate every large organization; and most importantly the junior officers and non-commissioned officers who must make up for “higher’s” planning inadequacies and strategic myopia. Larson’s use of a 2047 scenario in the southwest Pacific, with a lone Senator holding the deciding vote on whether or not to commit U.S. military power abroad, helps to reinforce the strategic consequences our actions today can have on future generations.

Set in 2007 Ar Ramadi, a city of nearly a half-million that serves as the provincial capital of al Anbar province just west of Baghdad, Senator’s Son is the story of the platoons of GOLF Company. GOLF is a Marine company (part of a Marine battalion tied to an Army brigade) responsible for sweeping missions in south Ramadi in the days prior to the 2007 Iraqi national referendum (and a few months prior to “The Surge”). Their early ventures from the “Snake Pit” (a heavily fortified Marine firm base) poignantly demonstrate the complexities of contemporary warfare.

The force protection concerns are palpable – one can almost smell the raw sewage flowing through the ruined streets of a dying city, and feel the peering eyes of snipers tracking you in their sights. Every piece of litter is a potential Improvised Explosive Device, and every sound a threat. And like Mayor Giuliani’s “Broken Windows” theory in late 1990s New York City, the reluctant shift from a hardened, up-armored patrol mindset to one of cooperative engagement with a foreign culture underscores the essence of counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine now codified in FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5: Counterinsurgency.

Like real life, there are few “happy endings” in this book. Each platoon commander in GOLF has his own strengths and fallibilities: from steadfast Bama’s bravery and bigotries to the maverick Greg’s ingenuity and independence. And each must face his own demons in the prose that Larson deftly weaves.

At a minimum, Senator’s Son is a brilliant primer on leadership: how to learn which rules are worth breaking, the importance of adaptability when there are no black-or-white situations but only gray, and the primacy of relationships.

But it is also a tribute to those who answer a call to serve – whether they serve in their own communities as volunteers, or have the privilege of wearing the Eagle-Globe-and-Anchor of a Marine (like my grandfather, a mortarman with CHARLIE-1-6 in Guadalcanal and Tarawa, and my grandmother, a clerk-typist at Hunters Point-San Francisco who met my grandfather after his malaria washed him out of the Fleet Marine Force). Senator’s Son is a testament to the resilience of those who carry the burden of personal sacrifice with such humility that we can take our own freedom for granted.

This book is a “must read” for anyone who cares about the greater world beyond our neighborhood – and the role that power (be it the “hard” power of weaponry and kinetic energy, or the “soft” power of relationships) can play in shaping the world for better or for worse.

(cross-posted at Antilibrary and Zenpundit)

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100 Days Later

About 100 days ago, on Inauguration Day, Michael Tanji's Threats in the Age of Obama (published by Nimble Books) hit the bookshelves. I am privileged to have been included in this veritable "who's who" of security theorists and bloggers.

My chapter (entitled "Blurring the Lines between War and Peace") was not "prescriptive", but rather a description of conditions concomitant with the empowerment of non-state actors and the devolution of warfare from state-v.-state.

So far, the Obama administration has made every gate I identified: acknowledgement of counterinsurgency as a principal mission space for our conventional military forces (a process set in motion pre-election by DoD Directive 3000.05); reorganizing the National Security Council to be a more-powerful arbiter of disputes across Cabinet departments and agencies (albeit bordering on micromanagement, as cited by Zenpundit); enhancing the responsiveness of local communities through a set of decentralized standards vice mandated responses (q.v. DHS Secretary Napolitano's wholesale review of the Incident Command System and National Incident Management System currently underway); and Defense Secretary Gates's admonishment for "new institutions" (cf. the fate of the F/A-22 RAPTOR, which will end production after this fiscal year).

Another co-author (and editor of a forthcoming Nimble publication on 5th Generation Warfare), Dan at TDAXP, has offered a provocative dual assessment of Obama's foreign policy ("a high A") and economic policy ("F"). Check it out.

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Home Office Tourney

Blogfriend (and occasional co-imbiber of fine fermented beverages) Zenpundit has tagged me in his "Tournament of Home Offices". Though we only moved in to our present home two-and-a-half weeks ago, I am more than happy to oblige....

First, there is the Library (which CINCHOUSE continues to urge me to "downsize" -- as if I'd never find a need for my "Elements of Classical Dynamics" text from college, or my hardcopy notes from Joint Maritime Ops at the Naval War College circa 1992!):

Then there is the fightin' hole:

The clocks show all the important time zones in the world: Hawaii Standard Time, Tehran, Greenwich Mean Time and (of course) local time of the Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center in lovely Colorado Springs, Colorado.

The bike is my Mercier Aero II (hoisted on a Minoura Rim Drive Action System for those blustery snowy days, or just about any time between Labor Day and Memorial Day).

The pen holder is a re-linked chain of .50-cal casings from a long-ago Science Advisor developmental test of a remote fire control system. The book next to the monitor is none other than Michael Tanji's edited work Threats in the Age of Obama.

And the beer is an Easy Street Wheat from Odell Brewing Company of Fort Collins, Colorado. There are a lot of benefits from living in the epicenter of U.S. microbreweries....

Of course, what Zen fails to mention about the esteemed Thomas P.M. Barnett office is the map painted on the walls/ceilings:

Hands down, Tom has the rockin'est home office.

I tag Sean Meade of interact, General of the Hordes Subadei, and Prof. Sam Liles of selil (who has the most impressive C2 / Info War library I've seen) to join the fray.

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... In the Age of Obama

The first three of Nimble Books' series ... In the Age of Obama are now available on Amazon. As mentioned in my post last week, my 20 co-authors are a real "Who's Who" of national security bloggers. Check it out -- it's a heck of a lot cheaper than hiring any of us as consultants!

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New 'Blog, New Post

After nearly a month as a contributor to the 'blog "Antilibrarium", I have finally offered my first post: a review of a book from my "Quantum Library", The Sea Power of the State by Admiral of the Fleet Sergei Georgyevich Gorshkov.

Here are links to descriptions of an Anti-Library (i.e., books you own but don't intend to read) and my own Quantum Library (books that lend new insights, even after multiple readings).

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Review: tdaxp's Revolutionary Strategies

Überblogger and 'blogfriend Dan Abbott (of tdaxp) has published his first book: Revolutionary Strategies in Early Christianity: 4th Generation Warfare (4GW) Against the Roman Empire, and the Counterinsurgency (COIN) Campaign to Save It. It's on sale now on Amazon.

Dan, a doctoral candidate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a co-contributing colleague of mine at Dreaming 5GW, is a dutiful student of the late Col. John Boyd's ideas regarding conflict, decision making and leadership. He introduced this book on his 'blog earlier this month.

Dan has done a remarkable job applying contemporary theories of warfare and network science to the early Christian / late Roman era. The most notable strength in Revolutionary Strategies is his inventive correlation of the defensive strategies employed by Caiaphas (the chief antagonist of Jesus’s ministries) to those of Diocletian (the late-3rd century Roman emperor who ordered the most severe persecution of the Christian faithful). Accompanying this analysis is a very cogent application of the theories of Boyd (Penetrate - Isolate - Subvert - Reorient - Reharmonize, or PISRR), with modern examples like Vichy France that match the dynamics in the early Christian church.

Both Caiaphas and Diocletian sought to preserve the status quo. For Caiaphas, appeasing Rome was his primary objective: a rogue rabbi who preached of other-worldly gifts would have reflected poorly upon him and his hierarchy. Diocletian clearly understood the management complexities of so vast an empire, and seemed to adeptly address many of the most-pressing ills that plagued the Empire (poor civic participation, an army spread thin on the borders with little to no interior defenses) despite his rampant cronyism (particularly in the establishment of the Tetrarchy). But for the first 18 years of his reign Diocletian was unconcerned about the "Christian threat" – and if it not for Galerius would likely have never ordered the Great Persecution.

Most significantly, Dan’s book opens several new fronts on the debate over the nature of insurgency – and counterinsurgency. For instance, is the ex post facto presumption of “co-option” by the splinter Jewish sect that has become the Christian church practical? Or, rather, was the Christian faith “culturally appropriated” by the Roman empire upon Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the early 4th century? While Dan asserts the former through the hypernetworking of the Apostle Paul, I believe this is a topic worthy of broader study. For instance, was Paul (née Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee) savvy enough to realize that his peers in Jewish leadership were attracting the ire of Rome? Did Paul’s ministries throughout the Mediterranean seek to increase the rift between Jerusalem and the splinter sect of Christian faithful? And were the Gospels written in a manner to give Rome (and particularly Pilate) a “pass” in the crucifixion of Jesus? (Note that three of the four Gospels were published immediately prior to the First Jewish-Roman War and the subsequent destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D.)

Dan also provides another benchmark in the evolving theory of the “generations of war”, to wit his development of a taxonomy to differentiate between the various generational constructs. Though I disagree with his assertions that the “0th” (zeroth) generation connotes a form of “total war” and that 3rd generation warfare connotes “better minds”, Dan brings value by identifying possible relationships across the xGW generations and inviting further dialogue.

This is perhaps the greatest utility of Revolutionary Strategies: proffering novel ideas in order to provoke debate. Just as the spiritual values of the Romans were initially at odds with the splinter Jewish sect we now call Christians, the different cognitive approaches of Islam and Christianity – one society favoring creativity and innovation, the other cherishing rote memorization – will have similar consequences for our own unfolding century.

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REVIEW: Taleb's "Black Swan"

After resting comfortably in my "anti-library" for many weeks, I recently plucked The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb from my dusty nightstand. Since I was embarking on cross-continental flights (albeit with kids), I was looking forward to punctuating the drink-and-peanut monotony of Southwest Airlines (an airline woefully unequipped for flights longer than 90 minutes) with Taleb's insights.

Since my days as a civilian employee of the U.S. Navy, where I evolved from an aspiring systems engineer to a "Science Advisor" to a manager leading the "Red Team" at U.S. Joint Forces Command J9, I have been fascinated with the prospect of "adversarial surprise". Like most analytical efforts under the loose employ of the Pentagon (which has roughly one government civilian employee [tail] for every two active duty soldiers/sailors/airmen/Marines [tooth]), this was a cottage industry.

Taleb's insights echo many of our observations in the Joint Experimentation program, particularly regarding the hubris of intellectualism. His skepticism of inductive logic, his emphasis on the importance of context in perceiving information, and his lionization of Doktor Prof. Sir Karl Raimund Popper (whom I had the pleasure of driving from leland stanfurd junior u. to Cal some 20 years ago in my Nissan Sentra) as well as Henri Poincaré are worthy of note.

However, his self-referential anecdotes are reminiscent of a Tolstoy novel, and his clear disdain for planning (née prediction) creates a scotoma that pulls him into the same abyss of solipsism that consumed David Hume.

The depth of his criticisms can be summarized quite succinctly as:
Don't use quantitative methods for qualitative questions.
Nature is benign, so we can ascribe a comfortable level of determinism to our observations. New data, often obtained through technological innovation, requires modification of obsolete theories (e.g., the Ptolemaic model of the universe to the Copernican; Newton's Laws of Motion to Einstein's Special Relativity; etc.). Key to our understanding (though Taleb would probably insist we understand nothing) is the selection of appropriate parameters -- and to not get too enamored with your own theories, especially if it involves any vestige of "free will".

Fallible? You betcha! Yes, we are inclined to fool ourselves. Yes, we try to cram too many variables into our formulae in some vain hope that we'll "get it right". And yes, our institutions -- particularly financial ones -- tend to reward the wrong kinds of behavior (q.v. Prof. Clay Christensen's The Innovator's Dilemma, in which Clay digs into corporate failures vice successes, finding that Wall Street rewards bad behavior). But Taleb's diatribe against the folly of "epistemic arrogance" has created another confirmation bias that only casually addresses the issue of scale when considering complex topics.

I understand that I am straying far from the "anchor" of many blogfriends (John Robb, Art Hutchinson, General of the Hordes Subadei, ARHerring, zenpundit, Chet Richards) who have offered glowing praise for The Black Swan. Perhaps it's my naïveté (or perhaps that I'm a product of the California public school system), but I honestly don't see our civilization marching toward "Extremistan". Quite the opposite: While our awareness of remote events has increased, and our networks have grown exponentially, I believe that the diffuse topology of our networks actually dampens the impact of an extreme event.

Consider the "Butterfly Effect". Do you really think a butterfly flapping its wings in Jakarta is going to eventually cause a hurricane in New York City? Or do you think the minor perturbation is absorbed locally without cascading into some kind of resonance? Yes, there are examples that illustrate the dire consequences of unplanned resonance. Taleb (who waffles at the end of his book as half hyperskeptic, half intransigently certain) abandons the Gaussian bell curve, yet -- with only a single mention of Albert-László Barabási -- firmly embraces Power Law scale invariance as normative.

Despite Taleb's too-casual treatment of scale, I think he would agree with George E.P. Box's statement (c. 1987) that "...[A]ll models are wrong, but some are useful." Abandoning our dogmatic devotion to certainty is essential in any creative, innovative enterprise -- and can reveal hidden opportunities, and hidden abilities.

This requires that we reexamine how we define "success". In my adopted hometown of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the best Calutron operators (the electromagnets that separated Uranium isotopes for the LITTLE BOY bomb at Y-12 during the Manhattan Project) were not the scientists from Berkeley who designed them, but seamstresses with no scientific training. And how many Americans would consider Tommy Franks or Norman Schwarzkopf as the most successful U.S. commanders in the Mid-East? What about Tony Zinni (who didn't win a major theater war, but may have demonstrated even greater skill by avoiding one)?

While many of us point to 9/11 as a "Black Swan", I can say unequivocally that it had a far less dramatic effect on my life than Continental Flight 196 on March 6th, 1993. Could I have predicted when or how I would meet the woman that would be the mother of my children? Of course not.... But was I open to the possibility, and adaptive enough (when jabbed in the ribs by Helen from Purchasing to move up one row on that flight) to take advantage of this blessing?

That may be the best value of Taleb's Black Swan: to jar us out of our collective comfort zones, to remind us how ignorant we truly are, and to encourage us to "Be Prepared!" Good advice, regardless of whether you live in Mediocristan or Extremistan.

Update: Überblogger Zenpundit has graciously linked this review -- and will have his own review posted this weekend. (Thx Zen!)

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Scale and (Over)Simplification

Following up yesterday's post on "Complexity and Scale", and the alarmist notion that society is bound to collapse because of its increasing complexity, let me turn the tables and describe a worrisome trend: that of oversimplification in the face of complexity.

Prof. Yaneer Bar-Yam of the New England Complex Systems Insitute (NECSI) has done pioneering research into the dynamics of complex systems. The first textbook on the subject was written by Yaneer in 1997, and a more-accessible (i.e., less math) introduction on applying complexity science to real-world problems (Making Things Work) followed in 2004. One of the most fundamental concepts in complex systems is the trade-off between complexity and simplicity when related to scale. Greater complexity at a large scale means greater simplicity at a fine scale, and vice versa.

Where we get into trouble is when we ascribe simple models that are inadequate for the complexity at a given scale. For instance, a hierarchy is limited in its inherent complexity to the complexity of its leader. Yet we persist in building simple hierarchical organizations (e.g., CPA and its successor organizations in Iraq) when the dynamics of the environment call for a more modular, diffuse network of organizations. Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety (c. 1956) asserts that, for a system to achieve stability in the midst of perturbations, its number of control variables must be greater than the number of possible states in that system.

Therefore, the most efficient organization in a dynamic, complex large-scale environment is not a Napoleonic hierarchy with a single overarching authority -- but rather a distributed, loosely connected network of specialized subnets that are empowered to act in response to system perturbations. Pop quiz: does the latter statement better describe the organizational paradigm of the coalition forces in Iraq, or of the various other force structures there (Mahdi, Badr, AQI, etc.)?

It is interesting to note that General Odom's recent Senate testimony (h/t Abu Muqawama) associates the decline in violence since General Petraeus's " ... reflects a dispersion of power to dozens of local strong men who distrust the government and occasionally fight among themselves. Thus the basic military situation is far worse because of the proliferation of armed groups under local military chiefs who follow a proliferating number of political bosses." Increased complexity at a higher scale due to the diffusion of military authority to lower scales.

The implications for the conventional force structure of the U.S. security infrastructure are profound. To borrow terminology from Tom Barnett, not only does this mean "Leviathan" can't do "SysAdmin" -- it means that the idea of a centrally-organized SysAdmin is doomed to failure.

Now that the study of self-organized criticality is 20 years old, which describes when a critical point in a dynamic system acts as an attractor, perhaps we will see commensurate change within our organizational models. For instance, the "Incident Command System" of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (which was derived from interagency evolution in response to wildfires, which was in turn derived from the military's deliberate planning process) defines standards to facilitate rapid organization, information sharing and decision-making.

Organizational models that facilitate effective (and appropriate) exchange of information, and -- most importantly -- allow the organization's evolution in the face of cooperation and competition are more effective in contending with the complexity of our world.

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[Moblog] Anyone notice ...

Has anyone noticed that John Arquilla used the exact same cover photo for his new book (Worst Enemy) that Don Vandergriff used for SPIRIT, BLOOD & TREASURE?



Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008)

Science fiction author, pundit, pioneer and visionary Sir Arthur C. Clarke passed away this morning in his adopted home of Sri Lanka. His short story The Sentinel (1948), which inspired his 1968 novel (and later one of my all-time favorite films) 2001: A Space Odyssey, demonstrated his keen insight into the perils of "artificial intelligence" and technological advancement.

Most notable was Clarke's professed skepticism of humanity and our inclination for self-destruction. A persistent theme in his Odyssey series (both the Space Odyssey as well as his later Time Odyssey trilogy) was the essential role "godlike" aliens played in creating -- and regulating -- sentient life in the Universe. His application of the Second Law of Thermodynamics (that entropy increases over time) and the implicit justification of his aliens' "regulation of life" to postpone the ultimate heat death of the Universe is a compelling syllogism.

Sir Arthur's creativity gave us a glimpse into our own souls, and the cosmic implications of our folly. For that we owe him our gratitude, and our well wishes as he today embarks on his own Rendezvous with Rama.

Update: Other tributes from Sharon @ Danger Room, Kingdaddy, Jason S., Jay M., Soob and Cheryl R.

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Osinga Roundtable: Boyd's Evolution

In an October 1939 radio broadcast, Winston Churchill described the Soviet Union as “… a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” The same can be said of the late Colonel John Boyd, whose prowess as a fighter pilot and whose lectures on the relationship between energy and maneuverability revolutionized the U.S. Air Force – but who published no books. Rather, his legacy was left in a stack of acetate vu-graphs (thankfully digitized by Chet Richards) and reams of personal papers. For his studious review of the latter, distilling the mind of Boyd into book form, Col/Dr Frans P.B. Osinga deserves our gratitude. He has played Clausewitz to Boyd’s Napoleon.

In Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd, Osinga presents us with a fascinating “deep dive” into the evolution of a brilliant thinker – a thinker who devoted his life to applied learning and teaching. Though it is unfortunate that Boyd did not see fit to publish his theories in book form (unsurprising given his professional environment far from the Ivory Towers of academe), it is evident from his 1,500+ presentations that he rigorously developed and willingly shared his ideas. Boyd’s stamina (both mental and physical) to lecture for more than a dozen hours at a time is testament to his devotion and his determination to succeed.

Osinga nicely complements the work of Boyd biographers (most notably Coram, Hammond and Richards) by dedicating the preponderance of his 300+ pages to how Boyd’s thinking evolved – describing his intellectual influences from the expected (Sun Tzu, Clausewitz) to the unexpected (Popper, Kuhn, Polanyi). Particular attention is given to the influence of classical physicists (Newton) as well as quantum theorists and mathematicians (Heisenberg, Gödel).

Boyd embodied the now-popular notion of the “Medici Effect”, a horizontal thinker who integrated perspectives across multiple, seemingly-divergent disciplines into a cohesive whole. His insights have proven applicable to a wide array of topics, and foretold of the emerging science of complexity theory (though I dislike Osinga’s use of the composite term “chaoplexity”, which undermines the distinction between “chaotic” – i.e., non-linear and seemingly random – and “complex” – i.e., a large number of interrelated properties or parameters). Given the swagger of the fighter pilot who bested the “best” in air-to-air combat in forty seconds or less, there is no doubt that Boyd – were he alive today – would be a prolific ‘blogger, and a Chicago Boyz contributor whose inputs would outweigh all of our Roundtable writings combined.

While many associate Boyd solely with the “OODA Loop”, he has given us far more than just a lexicon – just as Tom Barnett’s work is far more than simply “Core - Gap” and “Leviathan - SysAdmin”. Regardless of one’s willingness to accept his ideas, the sheer effort Boyd invested in his research – and Osinga’s effort in compiling the salient points for us – is an invaluable tool in anyone’s intellectual toolbox.

The motto of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration is Litera Scripta Manet: “The written word endures.” It is ironic that intellectuals tend to revere the commentator more so than the subject on whom they write: Herodotus over Leonidas, Thucydides over Pericles, Clausewitz over Napoleon. If history is consistent, then in a hundred years the name Osinga may be equally associated with the name of Boyd.

Update: Crossposted at Chicago Boyz.

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123 Meme (c/o ZenPundit)

'Blogfriend ZenPundit (undoubtedly in a pique of reciprocity from my recent "Christmas Meme") has tagged me with his 123 Meme. The rules:

1. Pick up the nearest book ( of at least 123 pages).
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people.

Within arm's reach to my left is Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies by Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras. From page 123:

... They also instill an intense sense of loyalty and influence the behavior of those remaining inside the company to be congruent with the core ideology, consistent over time, and carried out zealously.

Please don't misunderstand our point here. We're not saying that visionary companies are cults. We're saying that they are more cult-like, without actually being cults.

I tag five of my cohorts from Dreaming 5GW:

"The Skeptic", Curtis Gale Weeks
"The Enthusiast", PurpleSlog
"The Dreamer", Dan tdaxp
"The Voyager", Subadei
Adam Elkus

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Review: The Kite Runner

I recently finished reading Khaled Hosseini's widely-acclaimed first novel, The Kite Runner.

Hosseini, a native of Kabul, Afghanistan whose family fled in the wake of the Soviet invasion in 1979, is a physician living in the San Francisco Bay Area. In his first novel, he delivers poignant metaphors and striking prose that borders on the artistic.

The Kite Runner is the story of a boy who longs for his father's approval -- and whose choices create consequences for all around him. The story tells of ambition, regret, loyalty and an unquenchable aspiration for redemption.

While Afghanistan is clearly the backdrop, the protagonist hails from the affluent side of Kabul -- where his father owned a business, drove a Mustang and lived in a two-story house. Don't expect to gain a deeper appreciation for the "real" Afghanistan -- a sentiment echoed by a character from Peshawar later in the book who berates the protagonist as not being anything close to mujaheddin.

But do expect an emotional roller-coaster, where even someone from a place that few Americans could find on a globe before 9/11 shares the same dreams -- and battles the same demons -- as so many of us.

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